90s Movie Challenge Week 39: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Velcome to my house, Children of the Night. What sweet music we’ll make… because this week’s #90sMC is brought to you by our spooktacular chum Robert Johns who takes us back to 1992. So settle down, pour yourself a glass of the good stuff (I don’t drink… wine, Ed.) and check out…
Bram Stoker’s Dracula!
It was almost thirty years ago that I got wind of something very exciting was coming. It was the Summer of 1992, and I was flicking through the magazine stand at the local newsagents when I spotted something. An article about an upcoming Dracula film. I was instantly hooked and bought the magazine (I can’t remember what it was – Fangoria probably). I turned to the article and then had an agonising wait until the following January when the film was finally released.
When it finally did release, I was at the front of the queue, on more than one occasion. It was released in The Grand – an ancient music hall/theatre/cinema with plush seats arranged in a wide arc in front of the stage and screen. To access it you walked down a wide, long corridor to the ticket booth. Posters in frames decorated the walls on either side of you. The booth was a small hole in the far wall with a glass popcorn cabinet under the ticket desk. You paid your money and got a small paper rectangle for a ticket. It was a far better experience than the multiplexes of today I can tell you! Clutching a huge box of popcorn, I settled down in my seat and waited. Now I love trailers as much as the next person, but this was the opening of a new Dracula film, and I was desperate for it to start.
For the next two hours and eight minutes, I was transfixed by this film. It was absolutely amazing, and it was relatively faithful to the book. I think I probably watched it another three or four times in the cinema and it was certainly on my list of films to buy on VHS when it came out on that format. But culturally, the film had a massive impact on the world. A few months later I was returning from Plymouth on the train, chatting to another passenger about films. We got onto the subject of Dracula and before long, other passengers were joining in our conversation about the film. On television, the BBC rereleased its Dracula TV series starring Louis Jordan. That show, by the way, is well worth seeking out if you are a fan of the vampire. It’s quite faithful to the book and shot on location in Whitby which is a bonus. Mel Brooks released his parody film: Dracula, Dead and Loving It shortly afterwards and The Dracula Experience attraction in Whitby redesigned the shop frontage as a direct homage to the film. In the world of vampire films, this was at the pinnacle! This film was Top Dog in the playground!
So, what made it so iconic? Well, this film was the first time Bram Stoker’s novel had been adapted since the (excellent) 1979 film featuring Frank Langella as the Count. Prior to that Hammer Films had pretty much made the character their own and each new film featured the Count up to his usual mischief before being dispatched and everyone walking away happy. Dracula appeared in a few non-Hammer productions too, but the character had become synonymous with camp horror with dodgy special effects, bad scripts, and red paint instead of blood. When Dracula morphed into an occult version of Dr No in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, even Christopher Lee called it quits!
And this is where the challenge arose for Francis Ford Coppola. He had been wooed by the script by James V. Hart and wanted to make this film. The studios, however, were less than enthusiastic. Dracula had been done a hundred or more times (250+ times to be almost exact) so why should they stump up the greenbacks for this project. Coppola persuaded them that this script was different. This script followed the novel where the previous films hadn’t. Coppola won, but with a reputation for going over budget and over the deadlines, he had to pull something pretty spectacular out of the bag to keep the studios happy. And, oh my word, did he manage that or what?
To keep under budget and on time the film was made on sound stages so as not to get held up by bad weather. And Coppola wanted the actors and the costumes to be centre stage, with the sets (stunning as they were) to be mere backdrops. In effect, the film is an elaborate stage play. CGI was big business in films around this time too. If your film boasted expensive CGI special effects, then it was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. In keeping with his traditional style, Coppola eschewed any computer-generated visual effects. If he was making a classic film, from a classic novel, he was going to use the techniques and magic of that era. Every special effect is a physical or mechanical effect. There is no CGI in this film. The opening sequence features puppet silhouettes battling each other, overlays, miniatures, reverse and time-lapse filming were all used to give this film its unique style.
As I was preparing to write this article, I also decided to revisit the excellent soundtrack by Wojciech Kilar. At times reminiscent of The Omen with its eerie choral chanting and other times building tension through strings and shock notes, it’s a shame that it didn’t win an Oscar. The music takes me right back to the film. Speaking of Oscars, this was the first Dracula film to win not just one Oscar, but three! Including an Oscar for Best Costume Design thanks to the innovative work of Eiko Ishioka who radically changed the way Dracula looked. Gone was the all-black, be-caped vampire that had been a trope since 1931. Ishioka took inspiration from the art of Gustav Klimt, Steampunk, and Gothic imagery and created a romantic and exotic way for vampire enthusiasts to dress ever since (after all, black capes are so dull don’t you think??)
So, this film is the perfect Dracula film then? Well, no… not quite. But almost. There are a few minor errors here and there but, to be honest, you don’t really notice them unless you’re on your seventh or eighth viewing. The biggest problem is the casting. Not all of it!! Gary Oldman is fantastic. So is Anthony Hopkins (riding the crest of a career-high wave at this time – just forget Freejack), Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, and Tom Waits. Monica Bellucci and her two fellow brides are also perfect choices for Dracula’s concubines, and Sadie Frost plays Lucy as she absolutely should be played, oozing playful mischief and dangerous seduction in equal measures. It’s a pity that the same can’t be said for the casting of Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves.
I suspect that Ryder was cast as part of an agreement. After all, it was her who introduced Coppola to Hart’s script. Whilst not bad, her acting is not entirely good either. She seems too stuffy and not at ease with the role which is a shame because Mina Harker is a powerful role to play. Reeves, however, is almost the downfall of the film. Let’s be honest, the character of Jonathan Harker is a drip. He is merely exposition. No one wants to be him, no one who reads the story likes him. He’s just a plot point who is quickly forgotten about. And Coppola knew this. And I think Coppola was the only person in the World who felt sorry for Harker because he acknowledged that the part wasn’t “such a good part” and wanted to cast a “matinee idol” to fill this role. Keanu Reeves was chosen to play this part due to his sheer popularity. Sadly, he looks uncomfortable in all his scenes. His acting looks basic, and that English accent!!! I like Reeves in everything else he’s done; he just wasn’t right for this film.
However, despite Keanu’s terrible acting, this film is still excellent and has not yet been topped by anything that has followed and I don’t think it ever will. It has a unique style which is partly by design and partly because Coppola had to bring it in on time and on budget, and that is part of the magic. It’s also an origin story and the reincarnated, centuries-old love is played out extremely well thanks to Hart’s script. It’s a film I never tire of and, almost thirty years on, it has not lost any of that magic. There is a lot that other filmmakers could learn from this film when adapting novels and that’s because Coppola took a big gamble and it paid off. When you compare it with his next big venture: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein it didn’t have the same impact and the latter film wasn’t as successful. If he had followed the same formula as he had with Dracula maybe the film would have been much more well-received. We’ll never know.
Next week, we carry on with the Halloween theme as Jane Roberts takes us back to 1991 to visit some folk who are creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky. So get your witch’s shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on because we’re gonna pay a call on…
The Addams Family! (Doodly-doo, click, click! Ed.)